Racial Justice Resources

Stated Clerk: ‘No longer can we hide behind not being controversial’

The church is called to ‘dismantle structures that put people in poverty and pain’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II

LOUISVILLE — In a very real sense during the colossal challenges of coronavirus and civil protest, God is calling the church out, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II said during a Vital Congregations webinar Wednesday.

Following more than a week of protest that started with the death of George Floyd at the hand of Minneapolis police on May 25, “no longer can we hide behind not being controversial,” said Nelson, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “We are all caught in this quagmire now.”

“We are waiting for answers from old sources we have depended on for so long,” he said. “How deep is our faith? How deep is our commitment to get into places we aren’t familiar with and proclaim the gospel?”

The church, he said, is “called to dismantle structures that put people in poverty and pain,” to not only “share the gospel, but share ourselves.”

“We should not be out here being told to go back to barber shops and beauty shops when you’ve got a virus going on,” he said. “What about the people at the bottom who are struggling? We’re putting people’s health in jeopardy in order to make a dollar,” a statement Nelson said he realizes he’s making “from a position of privilege.”

In the face of all its current challenges, the church may struggle the most with its fear of failure, Nelson said.

“We have been grounded in doing things right,” using such guiding lights as the Book of Order, “and at times we become very legalistic. We’re in a very difficult period of history right now, and I’m not sure we’ll ever go back. This is a time of significant transition. We’re being called even though we don’t know the way, to engage even though we don’t have all the answers.”

Pastors and other church leaders have “engaged the world of technology. We found a vessel by the grace of God called Zoom,” by which General Assembly will be held online beginning June 19. “It’s a risk-taking venture for us,” he said. But technology also allows Nelson and others to watch “four or five televangelist Presbyterian preachers” every Sunday, “some using cameras that appear to be 100 years old to the newest technology to people splicing things together to make (worship) work.”

“I think that’s where the church is today. It’s under reconstruction,” Nelson said. “We don’t have all the answers, but we have the commitment to press on with what we have. The only thing stopping us is the fear of what might happen if it doesn’t work.”

Nelson, who’s fond of saying, “We are not dying — we are reforming,” did acknowledge “we are in that period where the church we used to know is dying, and so we are required to experiment with what the church will look like. I know it’s difficult,” but pastors and other church leaders should refrain from “gimmickry or throwing flash-in-the-pan theology at people, hoping they’ll think it looks good.”

Nelson complimented the 80 or so pastors and other church leaders participating in Wednesday’s webinar for embracing PC(USA) programs including Vital Congregations and 1001 New Worshiping Communities.

“These are in opposition to holding on and waiting for people to come to our church,” he said. “We find ourselves in a metamorphosis of change we didn’t choose, but we have to engage it. The contextual reality we have to face has something to do with what the Almighty is calling us to do,” and “nothing but faith” will get us there.

Asked how churches might effectively invite young people inside, Nelson suggested leaving church doors open even during times of protest.

“They need water and a time to rest,” he said, “and they need someone willing to pray with them … When people are protesting, it is an opportunity for churches to engage people by offering them something, and they’ll never forget it.”

Nelson said he grew to love the church “not because my daddy was a preacher, but because of the hospitality of churches who heard me when no one else would.” He suggested offering this invitation: “Stay. I’ll get you a cup of cold water, and I will listen to you.”

“Who knows?” he said. “It might be a transformative moment?”

As they prepare for midterms or final exams, students would relish coffee and cookies from a nearby congregation, he said. “Could our older members engage those young people with coffee and snacks on behalf of the church?” he said. He imagined what the older members’ tagline might be: “I hope you do well on the exams tomorrow. If you get a chance, our church is just down the street.”

Toward the end of the webinar, which lasted more than an hour, Nelson again praised the work of Vital Congregations for “catching the wind and the wave of this current hour, for getting out front and being part of the leadership” while “doing the grunt work of our denomination.”

“Vital Congregations is about using the best of what we know right now to wisely lead this denomination to a new era,” he said.


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